I’ve been waiting a long time for Medicine for Melancholy, a small, independent film is the debut effort from writer-director Barry Jenkins. It’s a love story that’s not about love. It is a movie that examines race, but there are no large black men in drag; no broad farcical elements; no hip-hop; no bling; no family reunions; no gunplay; no stepping; and no Jesus. Thank God! It is a movie about black people, that is mostly about people.
In the wordless opening scenes, we see twentysomethings Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Joanne (Tracey N. Heggins), awaking from a Saturday night of alcohol-fueled sex in the party thrower’s home. Both put toothpaste on their fingers and brush their teeth. What Jenkins captures perfectly is the awkwardness of the moment and the countless unvoiced conversations that happen between a man and a woman. The film, which is shot in de-saturated black and white (colors pop up every so often), is also a cinematic poem to the city of San Francisco, where the movie opens next Friday.
Micah is more talkative, so he suggests coffee. Jo, who at first gives him the blow-off name Angela, just wants to get home and take a shower. But after breakfast they share a cab, and though she bolts, she leaves her wallet behind. He decides to track her down thus starting a daylong courtship that explores race and class, but more importantly, connection and dislocation, both emotional and geographical.
At one point, Jo, who is taken by Micah’s sense of humor, reminds him: “This is a one-night stand!” He is by far the more aggressive and purposeful. Fact is, he's trying to recover from a broken heart—his pain is writ large on his MySpace page—while she has an out-of-town boyfriend.
Micah: “Is he white?”
Joanne: “Does it matter?”
Micah: “It does, and it doesn’t.”
What really matters is that she has a man at all. But he uses race as cover to go off on the fact that in a city with a dwindling black population—7 percent and dropping at last count—there are very few black couples walking around. And anytime you see black people, their arm is around a white person. All this from a guy whose ex is, of course, white. Jo says she doesn’t really notice or care. Micah takes Jo to the Museum of the African Diaspora, which she says she didn’t know existed. They spend the afternoon in and around the city, before returning to his shoebox apartment in the Tenderloin.
It’s easy to see why Micah is smitten. Jo is gorgeous, one of the most beautiful corn-flake-colored women you will ever see. And like him, she is “indie.” She makes T-shirts for a living—he is the No. 2 aquarium-installation guy in San Francisco, to hear him tell it—and they both reference independent and alternative film and music. The film’s soundtrack is luminescent. Yet at one point, an exasperated Micah exclaims: “Everything about being indie is tied to not being black.”
And there you have it: How do you do you, when everything you like screams not you? The complexity of black folk is what is denied. Maybe Micah cares too much about what people think and how they see and define him. But maybe Jo doesn’t care enough.
Day turns to night, and after sober lovemaking, a shared blunt and dinner, they go dancing. The only preachy moment in the film comes when they stand at a storefront and listen as community organizers lament the gentrification of the city. But even that’s in keeping with the film’s theme of dislocation and longing to belong.
At the end, neither really wants it to end, but Jo has a life to live, and Micah knows it. “Stay the night,” he implores. “Go back to your life tomorrow.”
Far from feeling sorry for either one or cheated that they didn’t seemingly end up together, I felt a rush of joy. Now, that was worth waiting for.
Nick Charles is a regular contributor to The Root.